Lackey, Napoli Key Crucial Game 3 Victory

Lackey pitched a phenomenal game on Tuesday. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Lackey used his emotions to turn in a phenomenal outing. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

For the first three games of the American League Championship series, the margin of victory has yet to be greater than a run. And for the second game in a row, the Red Sox left with the better result after nine innings, edging their Tiger counterparts 1-0.

After looking to capitalize on its part last Sunday in one of the greatest Boston sports days in history, New England’s baseball team instead returned to its troublesome ways for the first six innings on Tuesday. Tigers superstar Justin Verlander stifled the Red Sox lineup in the first two-thirds of the game, yielding just two hits and a walk, while continuing Detroit’s strikeout onslaught with eight of his own.

Boston’s anxieties began to resurface, as its offense had posted goose eggs in 22 of its last 24 combined innings played. But after Jacoby Ellsbury shot a potential slump-breaking single into rightfield, the tides began to change. The centerfielder’s presence on the base path rattled the once-composed Verlander, as his base-stealing prowess forced the right-handed pitcher to nervously check the first base bag several times.

Though Verlander managed to eventually escape that sixth-inning, the damage was done. Ellsbury unnerved the seemingly untouchable pitcher just enough, to where Verlander threw a wild pitch—bouncing but a few feet from catcher Alex Avila—and allowed the first Red Sox player to grace an elusive scoring position. Thereafter, the feeling was palpable: Boston was itching for a run.

Napoli caught all of the baseball in go-ahead home run. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Napoli caught all of the baseball in go-ahead home run. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Enter Mike Napoli, who before his pivotal seventh-inning at-bat seemed like a walking strikeout (going 0-6 with six strikeouts prior). Unable to follow up on David Ortiz’s grand slam on Sunday night, Napoli batted right after Ortiz once again (who grounded out to start the inning), but without all the pressure.

Faced with a 1-2 count, Napoli uncharacteristically passed on two more balls thrown outside the strike zone, bringing it to a full count. And even more unexpectedly, Napoli smashed the next pitch he saw from Verlander into left-center that traveled 402 feet, landing with a little more room for comfort than Sunday’s game-turning bomb.

In accordance with the run-scoring ways of this tight series, Napoli was the last player on either team to cross the plate. But above all, Tuesday’s low-scoring affair had more to do with John Lackey than anyone else.

While game delays usually disrupt the creatures of habit that are pitchers, John Lackey reacted to the power outage at Comerica Park during the middle of the second-inning with a fervent rage. The right-hander, endlessly maligned during his pre-2013 tenure in Boston, exuded a fiery attitude throughout the rest of the game, most noticeable in inning-end outs and later a reluctance to be pulled by manager John Farrell.

The game was delayed for 17 minutes because the lights went out. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The game was delayed for 17 minutes because the lights went out. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Lackey simply pitched mad, and in this case, he extracted the absolute best from his emotions. After the 17-minute delay, Lackey yielded just two more hits, fanning eight Detroit batters, before reliever Craig Breslow replaced him two-thirds through the seventh-inning.

It only took 97 pitches, but Lackey also dispelled a looming, larger-scaled fear for Boston through his fantastic outing in Detroit.

After having been embarrassed by Anibal Sanchez on Saturday en route to a decisive Tigers victory, the Red Sox had yet to face the actual daunting part of playing Detroit in a playoff series: its two-headed pitching monster of Max Scherzer and Verlander. The series was shaped around games featuring these two excellent starters; if Boston couldn’t take the must-win games that did not showcase Detroit’s top weapons, how could it possibly gain any leverage whatsoever in this series?

The growing distress out of Game 1 was initially quelled in the subsequent tilt—and just barely. Scherzer overpowered the Red Sox just as Sanchez had done the night before, but clutch hitting in the latter innings saved the team from the disaster of going to Detroit with two losses. The series shifted to Comerica Park with the Tigers having won at least one game at Fenway Park, but also having squandered a tremendous start by their ace in another.

On Tuesday, Lackey’s sublime performance finished off what David Ortiz & Co. started on Sunday: the process of regaining the edge in the series, without letting the Scherzer/Verlander combination dictate its fate. John Lackey fiercely out-dueled his pitching opponent, Verlander, who on most days would seemingly possess the clear advantage. The tables have now turned Boston’s way, and part one of Detroit’s ace-pitching show has been nullified.


AL Pitcher Rankings 5/28

1) Clay Buchholz

Despite some recent collarbone issues, Buchholz has cemented himself as one of the top hurlers in all of baseball. The Red Sox ace has an AL-best 1.73 earned-run average (the only ERA under 2.00 in the league) and a 2nd-best (T) 7 wins, as well as top 10 numbers in strikeouts and WHIP. In all ten of his starts, the Red Sox have won all but one game (they were held scoreless until the 8th inning). Buchholz has also had quality starts in 9 of 10 appearances–that one outlier was the also the only contest in which he didn’t reach at least 7 innings.

2) Matt Moore

Moore leads the American League with 8 victories, whose 2.21 ERA stands second only to Buchholz. Like the Red Sox pitcher, Moore’s team–the Rays–thrive off his performances, losing in just one of his starts (he went 6 innings and yielded 1 ER). The Tampa Bay ace doesn’t turn to K’s for outs like so many of his top-notch counterparts, but similar to them, has still had great success: 9 of his 10 starts were quality and in each he hit the triple-digit pitch count. Moore’s one flaw is that he only averages slightly over 6 innings per start (with 3 outings under his average)

3) Yu Darvish

Darvish has all but mastered the popular art of the strikeout, and has led his Rangers–who many counted out in the preseason–to form possession of the AL East. Yet while his 2nd most (T) AL wins (7) and most strikeouts in all of baseball (105) bode well for the slinger, another category he leads may not be so auspicious: he has the most pitches thrown in all of the majors, which could deteriorate his health.

4) Max Scherzer

With Justin Verlander struggling in the early part of the year, the Tigers’ other star pitcher–Scherzer–has taken control of the Detroit rotation. With a 2nd-best win total in the AL (7), Scherzer also stands tied for 3rd in strikeouts (81) and holds a very impressive 3rd-best WHIP (0.92), especially considering his erratic pitching past. Yet there is still some cause for concern for the developing hurler: Scherzer still posts a mediocre 3.42 ERA, and his AL 2nd-best run support (6.70) makes up for his 4 non-quality starts

5) Hisashi Iwakuma

One of the early surprises of the 2013 season, Iwakuma barely edges out his fellow rotation teammate King Felix to round out the top 5. The Mariner has a AL 3rd-best 2.35 ERA, along with the best WHIP in the league which stands at 0.84. Though he only has 5 wins (partly due to poor run support), Iwakuma has quality starts in all but 1 of his total 10 outings.